OLYMPIA — At least 8% of Washington state government workers subject to Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate have so far requested medical or religious exemptions, highlighting the breadth of resistance to the order.

As of Tuesday afternoon, at least 4,799 exemptions have been filed by workers at 24 state agencies in the governor’s executive Cabinet, according to spokespeople. The Cabinet includes most of the large agencies under Inslee’s purview, but doesn’t include smaller state agencies also subject to the mandate.

That amounts to roughly 8% of the approximately 60,000 state government employees who must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, or lose their jobs.

The numbers outline what’s at stake as Inslee pushes forward with one of the nation’s strictest vaccine mandates. In August, the governor ordered state workers, school workers and some health care employees to be vaccinated without a regular testing alternative as offered by some other states.

But resistance to the order has sparked demonstrations in Olympia and a lawsuit by dozens of Washington State Patrol troopers and others who contend that the mandate violates their constitutional rights and exceeds Inslee’s legal authority.

At the same time, there are concerns that an exodus of state workers could hinder core functions of government, from the ferry system and WSP, to the state’s prisons and social service programs.

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Asked about the exemption request figures, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee wrote in an email, “The governor is committed to saving lives, as he has since the start of the pandemic. That is his focus and his responsibility to all Washingtonians.

“We cannot weigh in on whether any particular employee would be fired — as there is an individualized accommodation process that each employer must go through with each employee that is seeking an exemption,” added Lee. “This process necessarily takes into account the employee’s actual job and the needs of the employer.”

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Even if workers are granted an exemption, they can still be fired if accommodations can’t be found for them in less public-facing positions.

Exemption requests are reviewed by each state agency, based on guidance established by Inslee’s administration. A medical exemption requires documentation from a worker’s medical provider.  

A religious exemption starts with a series of questions, and might later include specific follow-up questions by human resources to determine whether the request is sincere.

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So far, there have been few accommodations for exemptions that have been approved, according to state document released Tuesday that were compiled from older data.

As of Sept. 6, the state had 3,891 requests for religious exemptions, according to data compiled by the Office of Financial Management. Of those, 737 requests were granted — but accommodations were made for only seven workers.

Many employees whose exemptions are denied will be given extra time to get vaccinated before they ultimately lose their jobs. That grace period came courtesy of a labor deal between the Inslee administration and the Washington Federation of State Employees, the largest union representing state workers.

Exemption requests also don’t necessarily include state workers who may retire early rather than get the vaccine, or who might quit and take a job somewhere else.

The tension simmers as Washington in recent months has battled a fifth wave of COVID-19 that has strained the hospital system. More than 9 out of 10 patients hospitalized with the virus are unvaccinated, health officials have said.

The three vaccines authorized in the United States — Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — have been tested and found to be safe and effective in keeping people from being hospitalized by COVID-19.

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How do exemptions work?

Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate for state government employees allows for religious or medical exemptions in certain cases. But the governor’s office has said exempted employees could still lose their jobs if there is no way to accommodate them to a less public-facing role.

To apply, workers submit exemption-request forms, which are based on guidance established by Inslee’s administration, to their agency’s human resources department.

Medical exemptions are handled under the Reasonable Accommodation process under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Those exemptions require documentation from a worker’s medical provider.

Religious exemptions are handled under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission criteria, a more vague section of law.

A sample religious exemption form includes a series of questions, such as whether the applicant has ever gotten a vaccine, and why a dose conflicts with their religious beliefs. Human resources staff might then ask follow-up questions to determine whether the request is sincere.

If an exemption request is denied or the state doesn’t make an accommodation available, many workers will be able to use up to 45 days of paid or unpaid leave to get fully vaccinated.

 

Sources: Office of Gov. Jay Inslee, Office of Financial Management, Washington Federation of State Employees.

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The numbers so far

● At least 1,400 workers at the state Department of Social and Health Services have requested exemptions, according to spokesperson Adolfo Capestany. One of the largest state agencies, DSHS oversees parts of the state’s mental health system, as well as economic assistance, aging and long-term care services, among others.

● The Washington Department of Corrections has received 582 exemption requests, according to spokesperson Jacque Coe.

● At the Washington state Department of Transportation, 542 exemption requests have been submitted, according to spokesperson Kris Rietmann Abrudan. Of those, 48 were for medical reasons and 494 were for religious reasons, she added.

● The Department of Children, Youth and Families — which oversees the state’s foster-care system, among other services — has received 426 exemption requests, according to spokesperson Nancy Gutierrez.

● As of Monday, nearly 400 exemptions have been filed at the Washington State Patrol.

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● And 258 workers at the Department of Labor and Industries — the agency that has been tasked during the pandemic with enforcing many of the governor’s emergency orders in workplaces — requested exemptions.

● About 10% of the 724 employees at the Department of Enterprise Services have requested exemptions, according to spokesperson Linda Kent. That agency manages the Capitol campus in Olympia, and performs services for government such as risk management, printing and contracting.

● The Department of Veterans Affairs has received 111 requests statewide, according to spokesperson Heidi Audette, totaling more than 12% of that agency’s workforce. 

● The Employment Security Department has received 271 requests, and the Department of Revenue has gotten 93 requests, according to spokespeople. The Department of Licensing, meanwhile, has fielded 87 requests.

● The Department of Health has 171 requests for exemptions, according to a public-records officer for the agency.

The bulk of the exemptions have been filed for religious reasons, according to spokespeople at the agencies that provided breakdowns.